HUFFW RADIOLTR 93 MAG AM-Radio Market Letters to Editors, 1982-1992
INDUSTRY RESPONSE IN THE AM STEREO MARKETPLACE:
LETTERS TO TRADE MAGAZINE EDITORS, 1982 TO 1992
W.A. Kelly Huff, Ph.D.
Department of Communication
University of South Alabama
Mobile, AL 36688
Phone: (205) 380-2800
Fax: (205) 380-2850
This research analyzes letters to editors about AM stereo
appearing in the trades Broadcasting and Radio World. Content analysis
of 167 letters dated March 1982 through November 1992 assesses what
broadcast industry members said in the decade after the FCC's
unprecedented 1982 decision not to set an industry standard for AM
stereo broadcast transmission. Information in the letters contributes
information about the previously unknown broadcast marketplace method
of technical standard-setting.
FULL TEXT OF PAPER:
The FCC and the broadcast trades
In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission
(FCC) is the governmental agency charged with selecting broadcast
transmission system standards. In standards proceedings carried to
completion, the FCC typically opens an inquiry into the feasibility and
necessity of a new technology, follows with at least one notice of
proposed rulemaking, and concludes with a rulemaking proceeding. The
trades "go and report that decision to complete the process" (Brenner,
1992, p. 95).
Initial inquiries are usually prompted by petitions from
broadcast interest groups or from manufacturers hoping to market their
innovations. Opinions and comments about the inquiry are solicited by
the FCC, and further opportunities are granted for subsequent replies.
Meanwhile, the Commission's various research departments study and test
proposed systems. In the final rulemaking proceeding, the Commission
announces both its decision of the industry system standard, and the
date when stations may begin using the new technology.
As the FCC proceeds along its course, various trade magazines
report the Commission's actions to the industry, giving "the reader a
satisfying and accessible entry to the broad array of what is going on
at the FCC" (Brenner, 1992, p. 103) "Albeit passive," broadcast trade
magazines "can play a role" in both decisions and "nondecisions," and
"often serve as a window on the 'real world' for regulators (and other
readers)" (Brenner, 1992, p. 95).
The AM stereo marketplace decision
From 1977 to 1980, the FCC followed traditional procedure in
seeking a system standard for AM stereophonic broadcasting. Having
lost 40 percent of its audience to high fidelity FM in less than 20
years, it was widely held that stereo might provide the necessary
remedy for AM's ills.
Various industry factions lobbied for one or another of five
competing systems proposed by Belar, Kahn, Motorola, Magnavox, and
Harris. The FCC struggled over which would best serve the public
interest. In 1980, the FCC "tentatively" chose Magnavox as the
standard, and the news was leaked to the trades. Tremendous negative
feedback ensued, forcing the FCC to reconsider (FCC, 1980, p. 2) and to
resume its quest under the increasing scrutiny of the trades.
Unable to make a decision, the FCC announced on March 4, 1982,
that the matter would be left to the marketplace. Concluding "the
marketplace will correct whatever deficiencies may exist" (Ray, 1990,
p. 170), the FCC's self-described "bold, new step" (FCC, 1982, p. 17)
was final. For the first time, the industry was forced to establish
its own transmission standard. Some in the industry believed the FCC
left AM in a hopeless situation. Each of the five systems was
incompatible with the other, meaning that each could only be decoded by
a receiver employing the same technology. The Commission, however,
appeared confident the best system would prevail: "Our society
generally has not seen fit to supplant the free decisions of consumers
with those imposed by government, and there is no convincing reason why
AM radio" should be given preferential treatment (FCC issues, 1982, p.
Those in the business of AM broadcasting and receiver equipment
manufacturing did not share the FCC's optimism. Realizing that the
market might eventually filter out one of the five systems, most
receiver manufacturers and AM stations were reluctant to align with
one. As a result, few manufacturers built receivers, few stations
installed AM stereo, and the listening public was never given a
reasonable opportunity to accept or reject the technology.
Within two years after the marketplace decision, just the
systems of Motorola and Kahn remained. Surprisingly, receivers capable
of decoding all five systems emerged, but were unsuccessful. Over the
years, a number of broadcast industry players petitioned the FCC to
reconsider. Obligated legally to answer the petitions, the FCC
purposely delayed public comment until 1988 when it could deny them all
in one tidy proceeding. The FCC said there was no need to intervene,
because in its opinion the market was working. Citing Motorola's lead
over Kahn as evidence, the Commission declared the system a de facto
standard (FCC, 1988). Nonetheless, the Kahn company has refused to
concede, leaving the AM stereo standard question unanswered. However,
the lack of a standard cannot be attributed to lack of effort on the
part of many writers of letters to the editor of broadcast trade
Letters to the editor and AM stereo
AM stereo illustrates more than the FCC's reluctance to
regulate; it exemplifies the pros and cons of the marketplace, a
previously unknown player in standard-setting (Huff, 1991). Various
studies have examined the events which occurred before and after the
marketplace decision1, and each has offered points of view of the FCC
and the AM stereo system competitors. However, little attention has
been given to the perspectives of those most directly affected by the
marketplace decision -- managers and engineers of AM stations. One way
to gain a better understanding of the AM stereo marketplace is through
letters written to trade magazine editors.
Researchers indicate that letters to the editor are typically
"based on some expertise" of the writer (Singletary, 1976, p. 536).
Readers have "a fairly high degree of acceptance" of letters to
editors, find them "reliable," and would complain if letters were not
available to them (Singletary, 1976, p. 536). Often, persons who read
letters are "testing public opinion on issues," and writers are
"letting off steam" (Davis & Rarick, 1964, pp. 108-109) in a cathartic
manner (Singletary, 1976, p. 536). Others look for a "sounding board,"
a kind of feedback, "a map of his ideas or opinions in relation to
those of others, in regard to, for instance, logic, popularity of the
idea, appropriate emphasis, and strength of feeling" (Grey & Brown,
1970, p. 471).
Readers of communication trade magazines may represent an even
more knowledgeable group than those typically studied. For one, these
people have more than just a passing interest in a topic. They are a
part of the industry about which they write, and they might actually
have an impact on a given situation. They have vested interests and
feel compelled to let others know what they believe. The broadcast
trade magazines are an avenue by which one can speak or hear what
others in similar situations are thinking.
There is no presumption here that letters to trade magazines
are the best indicator of opinion about AM stereo or any other matter.
Indeed, one of the primary problems in using letters to editors as
indicators of public attitudes is that the writers are a self-selected
group. Despite being self-selected, however, the FCC depends greatly
on letter writing to help make decisions. Summaries of such
correspondences are made available in the texts of the FCC's various
inquiries and rulemaking dockets. Such written input prompted the
FCC's initial reversal of the Magnavox decision in 1980. Therefore,
there is a presumption industry letters to the trades might be
"valuable indicators of political attitudes, frustrations and change"
(Grey & Brown, 1970, p. 471; Foster & Friedrich, 1937) in the broadcast
industry -- a rather self-selected group in itself. While most studies
about letters to editors have focused on newspapers and the writers of
those letters, little or no research exists concerning broadcast trade
magazine letters, the people who write them, and what they write. Even
more rare are applications of content analysis to events other than
To add to our limited knowledge about trade magazine letters to
editors, AM and AM stereo radio, and the previously unknown broadcast
marketplace, this research analyzes content of letters to editors
appearing in two leading broadcast industry trade magazines. Focusing
on the first ten years of the AM stereo marketplace, a sample of 167
letters was gathered from Broadcasting and Radio World. The study
documents certain data about the writers and assesses what these
induviduals said about AM stereo after the FCC's unprecedented
marketplace decision. Because the marketplace method of technical
standard-setting was being implemented for the first time in FCC
history, no yardstick of any kind exists by which to measure its
Background and Method
Copies of letters were gathered via a comprehensive search
through issues of Broadcasting and Radio World dated from March 1982
through November 1992. To be included in the sample, letters were
required to refer specifically to AM stereo. General AM radio letters,
for example, were eliminated from analysis. A total of 167 letters met
the criteria. Each letter included the name of the writer, and most
listed the writer's title, position, affiliation, and geographic base.
These were quantified. Each letter was coded, read, and analyzed
for themes. An additional coder examined every fourth letter (25
percent) of the sample. Little difference was noted between the
coders, and discussion brought agreement on all themes. Themes were
quantified and placed into common categories.
Upper level management positions were responsible for 72
letters (43.11 percent). Of these, 43 (25.75 percent) were from
Presidents/CEOs, and nine of the 40 (5.39 percent) were written by
Presidents/CEOs of companies manufacturing AM stereo systems. One
letter was from Belar President Arno Meyer and eight were written by
Leonard Kahn, President of Kahn/Hazeltine. General Managers were a
distant second in frequency with 11 (6.59 percent). Surprisingly, only
two letters were written by company owners (see Table 1). Typically,
the owner of a small market AM station would also serve as President or
CEO. Because small market stations appeared most vulnerable to AM's
slide, one would tend to predict more owners would respond about AM
President/General Managers wrote seven letters (4.19 percent);
Vice Presidents, five (2.99 percent); Vice President/General Managers,
four (2.40 percent); and General Managers, 11 (6.59 percent).
Positions held by letter writers
Position (n) %
Upper Level Management 66 39.52
Company Owner 1 0.60
President/CEO 40 23.95
President/General Manager 7 4.19
Vice President 4 2.40
Vice President/General Manager 4 2.40
General Manager 10 5.99
Middle Level Management 14 8.38
Operations Manager 5 2.99
Program Director 6 3.59
Sales Manager/Representatives 3 1.80
Engineering 52 31.14
Others 26 15.57
Consultant 5 2.99
Generic Broadcast Position 14 8.38
Unknown Affiliation 7 4.19
Only 14 letters (8.38 percent) came from middle management.
Operations Managers wrote five (2.99 percent). Program Directors wrote
six (3.59 percent), and Sales Managers or Sales Representatives wrote
three (1.80 percent).
The largest response for a single position came from engineers
with 54 letters (32.34%), or nearly one-third of the total sample.
Engineering was placed in a singular category because of the nature of
the position. Some engineers perform other duties in the industry, but
those with engineer listed prominently as a title were not considered
management level. Presumably, since the FCC left the technical
standard decision to the broadcasters, engineers would play a
significant role in selecting or recommending an AM stereo system. As
with Presidents/CEOs, however, six of the letters from engineers were
written by a single, staunch supporter of Kahn's system.
Another 26 letters (15.57 percent) were written by persons who
did not specifically list titles, such as consultants of an unknown
nature. Thus, they were grouped with generic broadcast positions (14
or 8.38 percent) and the eight (4.79 percent) with no affiliation
given. Persons placed into generic broadcast categories generally
listed an affiliation, but did not list a title. Writers offering no
affiliation typically included only their name and/or an address.
A total of 137 individuals wrote just one letter each (82.04
percent). Seven persons wrote two letters each (4.19 percent), and
three wrote three each (1.80 percent). One individual wrote six, and
another wrote eight.
Of the 167 total AM stereo letters, 77 (46.11 percent)
contained a single theme and 90 letters (53.89 percent) had multiple
themes. Forty-nine letters had two themes (29.34 percent); 27 letters
had three themes (16.17 percent); 11 letters had four themes (6.59
percent); one letter had five themes; one letter had six themes; and
one letter had seven different themes.
1) Steps must be taken to ensure AM stereo success (see Table
2). By far, the most prevalent argument appeared in 156 (93.41
percent) of the letters: AM stereo, in and of itself, cannot prosper
in the marketplace. Forty-eight writers (28.74 percent) said that
manufacturers must forge ahead with the production of AM stereo
receivers. Eleven of those letters (6.59 percent) advocated
manufacture of multi-decoding receivers capable of deciphering the
signals of all five AM stereo transmission systems. One even suggested
that the FCC make multi-decoders mandatory. On the other hand, just 17
writers (10.18 percent) argued that broadcasters' should first make a
decision on a standard system.
Three letter writers said delivery systems, or transmission and
reception equipment, were not the answer. Rather, proper programming
strategies are more important to AM success. However, eight times as
many (24 or 14.37 percent) said a combination of delivery systems and
programming were important for AM stereo to succeed. Just one writer
suggested delivery systems alone were important.
Steps must be taken to ensure AM stereo success
(156 of 167, 93.41%)
Theme (n) %Category %Total
Receivers are key to AM stereo success 37 23.72 22.16
Supports multi-decoding receivers 11 7.05 6.59
Broadcasters need to make decision on
standard system 17 10.90 10.18
Delivery systems (transmission and
reception) not the answer, programming is 3 1.92 1.80
Delivery systems (transmission and
reception) and programming are answer 24 15.38 14.37
Delivery systems (transmission and
reception) are answer 1 0.64 0.60
AM stereo will succeed only with
other technical upgrades 22 14.10 13.17
AM stereo is working 5 3.21 2.99
Promote AM stereo 24 15.38 14.37
Educate consumers 13 8.33 7.78
In the second most prevalent category, 37 writers (22.16
percent) said AM stereo's primary problem is lack of promotion and
consumer education. Two of the letters favoring promotion, however,
urged holding off any campaign until AM stereo is perfected. Twenty-
two other writers (13.17 percent) said AM stereo will succeed only in
combination with other technical upgrades, such as overall AM
improvement in sound quality and elimination of interference. One
person called for the FCC to base license renewal on AM improvement.
Four writers said AM stereo is working successfully for them.
2) AM stereo systems (see Table 3). Sixty-four letters (38.32
percent) supported or opposed at least one AM stereo system. In fact,
in all but one letter Kahn and Motorola were the only systems mentioned
of the original five. In the letter, the writer favored Motorola and
opposed the systems of Magnavox, Harris, and Kahn by name. Belar was
cited only in President Arno Meyer's letter written to dispute
information in a Broadcasting magazine article. The Kahn system
received support in 36 letters (21.56 percent). Of those, 14 letters
(8.38 percent) also opposed Motorola; one suggested Kahn and Motorola
should merge their systems; and another said Kahn developed a good
system but knew nothing about marketing it. The Kahn system was
opposed in only eight letters (4.79 percent), for a ratio of about four
and one-half for Kahn to one for Motorola.
AM stereo systems
(64 of 167, 38.32%)
Theme (n) %Category %Total
Supports Kahn system and rejects Motorola 14 21.88 8.38
Supports Motorola system and rejects Kahn 7 10.94 4.19
Opposes Kahn system 1 1.56 0.60
Opposes Motorola system 3 4.69 1.80
Supports Kahn system 21 32.81 12.57
Supports Motorola system 13 20.31 7.78
Kahn and Motorola should merge systems 1 1.56 0.60
Marketplace battle may kill AM stereo 4 6.25 2.40
Motorola was the system of preference in 21 letters (12.57
percent). Kahn was also rejected in seven of the pro-Motorola letters
(4.19 percent). Motorola was opposed in a total of 17 letters (10.18
percent), almost an even ratio between supporters and opposition. Four
letters (2.40 percent) indicated a fear that the prolonged Kahn vs.
Motorola battle might permanently damage the cause of AM stereo.
3) Response to trade magazine content (see Table 4). Of the
167 total letters, 62 (37.13 percent) contained themes responsive to
items previously written in the trades. Of 32 letters inspired by
previous letters to the editor, 16 were in support (9.58 percent) and
16 were in opposition (9.58 percent).
In assessing theme categories, no distinction was made between
articles and editorials. Rather, 30 letters (17.96 percent) written in
response to trade magazine staff articles or editorials were placed
under the umbrella of editorial content. Only eight letters (4.79
percent) supported views of trade magazines, while 21 (12.57 percent)
wrote to oppose them. One other letter responded to an advertisement
in a trade.
Response to trade magazine content
(62 of 167, 37.13%)
Theme (n) %Category %Total
Supports trade magazine letter 16 25.81 9.58
Opposes trade magazine letter 16 25.81 9.58
Supports trade magazine editorial content 8 12.90 4.79
Opposes trade magazine editorial content 21 33.87 12.57
Supports trade magazine advertisement 1 1.61 0.60
4) Reaction to the Marketplace Decision (see Table 5). Of the
167 letters, 50 (29.94 percent) responded with themes directly related
to the marketplace, particularly in relation to governmental
intervention. Nine writers (5.39 percent) said the FCC foiled AM
stereo by not picking a standard, and another nine (5.39 percent) urged
the FCC to reconsider its decision and adopt an AM stereo system
standard. Two others (1.20 percent) said the marketplace is not
working, and six (3.59 percent) suggested legislators must get involved
and help AM stereo succeed. Three letters (1.80 percent) said the
marketplace is working, and two others (1.20 percent) wanted no
legislative involvement at all.
Nine letter writers supported the concept of AM stereo (5.70
percent), five opposed the concept of AM stereo (2.99 percent), and
three were undecided about AM stereo's role in aiding AM (1.80
Reaction to the Marketplace Decision
(50 of 167, 29.94%)
Theme (n) %Category %Total
FCC foiled AM stereo 9 18.00 5.70
The marketplace is working 3 6.00 1.80
The marketplace is not working 2 4.00 2.40
The FCC should reconsider and adopt
an AM stereo standard 9 18.00 5.70
Legislators must help AM 6 12.00 3.60
Legislators must not help AM 2 4.00 2.40
Supports AM stereo concept 9 18.00 5.70
Opposes AM stereo concept 5 10.00 2.99
Undecided on AM stereo concept 3 6.00 1.80
5) Miscellaneous. Three letters (1.80 percent) contained
themes which did not fit into any of the other four categories. Two of
the three, however, mentioned the Japanese. One letter from a
broadcaster indicated a desire to wait for the Japanese government to
pick an AM stereo system. The other wrote to complain of Japan's
objection to any U.S. AM stereo legislation. A third letter offered an
engineering shortcut suggestion concerning AM stereo installation.
(3 of 167, 1.80%)
Theme (n) %Category %Total
Waiting for Japanese to pick AM stereo system 1 33.33 0.60
Opposes Japanese lobbying in U.S. 1 33.33 0.60
Engineering suggestion 1 33.33 0.60
Perhaps the most important finding, as well as the most
puzzling, was the relative lack of venom displayed toward the FCC for
sending the AM stereo decision to the marketplace. In the entire 50-
year history of the FCC, the Commission had never failed to select a
technical transmission standard. Most writers appeared more interested
in the success of the AM stereo marketplace, rather than in blaming the
FCC for the marketplace decision. Still, though the industry seemed
ready and willing to give the marketplace a chance, there was
uncertainty over how to go about it. Should the broadcasters pick a
system, or should receiver manufacturers shoulder the responsibility?
Letter writers, by a two-to-one margin, said receivers were more
important in the success of AM stereo than were systems.
Kahn's system received nearly twice the support of Motorola.
Motorola's huge lead over Kahn in numbers of AM stereo systems in use
could have had an impact. For instance, Kahn letters could have been
accelerated to fight a losing cause.
Several findings are consistent with previous studies.
Published items are often stimulated by editorials, articles, or other
letters to editors. Frequently, many letter writers are opposed to
someone or something. Those writing letters perceive themselves as
experts, but are also looking for the approval of their peers. Writers
also seek to inspire others to make their feelings known. They may
also be frustrated because they have been unsuccessful in using other
channels. Writers of letters to broadcast trades, however, may
accomplish more than just "letting off steam," Indeed, as integral
parts of the industry about which they write, trade magazine letter
writers may have a better chance at impacting a situation than do
writers to the popular press.
As a measure of industry sentiment, the research reported here
may be beneficial in gaining a better perspective on the thoughts of
broadcasters toward the AM stereo marketplace. Some generalizations
can be made about attitudes and interests of broadcasters. Broadcast
trade magazine letter writers appear to be an informed group. As
active members of the industry about which they write, they have vested
interests and feel compelled to speak and to hear from others in
similar situations. Trade magazines provide a forum for open exchange
which may serve as a valid barometer of industry opinion. However,
more research is needed.
1 See, for example: Huff, W.A.K. (1987). A history of AM stereo
broadcasting to 1987. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of
Southern Mississippi; Huff, W.A.K. "FCC Standard-Setting with Regard
to FM Stereo and AM Stereo." (1991, Fall). Journalism Quarterly, 68
(3), 483-490; Huff, W.A.K. (1992). "AM Stereo in the Marketplace:
The Solution Still Eludes." Journal of Radio Studies, 1, 15-30;
Klopfenstein, B.C. & Sedman, D. (1990, Spring). Technical standards
and the marketplace: The case of AM stereo. Journal of Broadcasting &
Electronic Media, 34 (2), 171-194; Miller, C. (1984, Winter). AM
stereo: After all these years, is the marketplace ready? Feedback,
14-18; Pennybacker, J.H. & Mott, D.R. (1984, Winter). AM stereo:
Broadcasters' acceptance. Feedback, 19-21; and, Sterling, C.H. (1982,
Autumn). The FCC and changing technological standards. Journal of
Communication, 32 (1), 137-147.
Brenner, D. (1992). No, but I read the magazine article. Media
Studies Journal, 6, 93-103.
Davis, H. & Rarick, G. (1964). Functions of editorials and letters to
the editor. Journalism Quarterly, 41, 108-109.
Grey, D.L. & Brown, T.R. Letters to the editor: Hazy reflections of
public opinion. Journalism Quarterly, 47, 450-456, 471.
FCC. (1980). In the Matter of AM Stereophonic Broadcasting:
Memorandum Opinion and Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rule
Making. Washington, DC: Author.
FCC. (1982). In the Matter of AM Stereophonic Broadcasting: Report
and Order (Proceeding Terminated). Washington: Author.
FCC. (1988). In the Matter of AM Stereophonic Broadcasting:
Memorandum Opinion and Order. Washington: Federal Communications
FCC issues 'tenuous' AM stereo rankings. (1982, March 22).
Broadcasting, p. 73.
Foster, H.S., Jr. & Friedrich, C.J. (1937). Letters-to-the editor as a
means of measuring the effectiveness of propaganda. American
Political Science Review, 31, 71-79.
Huff, W.A.K. (1991). FCC standard-setting with regard to FM stereo
and AM stereo. Journalism Quarterly, 68, 483-490.
Ray, W.B. (1990). FCC: The Ups and downs of radio-TV regulation.
Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press.
Singletary, M. (1976). How public perceives letters to the editor.
Journalism Quarterly, 53, 535-537.
Presented at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communi-
cation (Magazine Div.) Annual Convention, Kansas City MO, 11-14 Aug 1993